Why don’t you be a nice girl, and keep quiet?

I have time for one more post today, and it’s from a Facebook conversation I had earlier in the week. I won’t present the words or ideas of my interlocutors there…they can participate here if they like. It all started with this:

From friend's profile on FB; appears uncredited.

The text that accompanied the image said something like “don’t complain about being in the 99% while you’re relaxing with your smart phones” while my friend who posted it added something about protesters needing to be aware of how they looked to outsiders, and incorporating this into their strategies. Here’s my response, which I’ll add to, below:

People do know that Claudette Colvin, aged 15, was the first NAACP member to protest the segregation of city services in Montgomery by sitting in the front of the bus? And that the NAACP decided not to make her the public face of the cause because she was young, and wasn’t seen to have the proper “moral character?” (She got pregnant out-of-wedlock after her arrest.) (…oh, and they didn’t hesitate to use her and three other women in the case they put in front of the Supreme Court–NOT Parks).

Protests seem to give people so much license to judge one another, when I always think they are opportunities to come together and address ourselves productively to the communities in which we live. I look at this picture on the right and it makes sense to me. We’ve got massive unemployment (or under-employment) among young Americans…even white ones, but especially people of color. And who else can be expected to sleep in a park for a month?

The “problem” presented by their smart phones isn’t a problem at all….How do you think people in Tarhir Square organized their activities? Weren’t we all just applauding them? What exactly is the difference? That they’re sitting on the ground? Jesus. Get a grip.

Anyway, to answer XXX’s question [which was about the demographic composition of OWS]: old and young and middle aged; rich, poor and working class; all races; lots of kids with parents; labor movement folks–hard core protester types, and folks who’ve never done it before; lots of European lookie loo tourists; Ron Paul supporters; lots of people that voted for Obama; people who have never voted; the homeless; veterans. I’d say “a cross section of America” but that’s not exactly right…have yet to see many politicians or corporate CEOs/CFOs.


What I would add to this now? That’s not actually a photograph of Rosa Parks the day she got arrested.

I think it is sort of amazing, this constant desire for an “acceptable” victim. It reminds me of a nice piece of sociological research on the transformation of how homosexuals were viewed after the AIDS epidemic began. The author argues (based on a content analysis of news coverage of those years) that the response among pro-gay rights groups was to promote the notion of a “respectable homosexual.” (Just as the image above could be seen to promote a “respectable Occupier.”) The respectable homosexuality was defined by the fact that he resembled some kind of heterosexual ideal: a man who was in a stable, monogamous relationship. This meant homosexual men were being held to a standard most straight men can’t achieve…and that’s  hypocritical. What was dangerous was the reinforced notion that this was a disease spread by the sexual profligacy of gay men, and not by unprotected sex: news which might have gotten out had the discourse not focused on it as “the gay plague.”

As Mary Douglas famously argued, “dirt is any matter out of place.” Homosexuals are “dirty” when they spread AIDS, and protesters are dirty when they cause a nuisance in public, and “lie” about how disadvantaged they “truly are.” These things can change. We can reshape our world so that more and more different things find their place amongst us. I think most communities would pride themselves on a spirit of inclusiveness and trust, were it to be found.

I think poor and working class people have been treated like dirt for the last 40 years or so. Critics of the welfare state tend to describe the poor as dirt personified–as animals, leeches, undisciplined, lazy, and other unkind words. That the poor include a great number of people of color and recent immigrants furthers the association of people from these groups with dirt and other socially undesirable characteristics. I think it is time to help the poor and working people of our country find their proper place at our table. Believe it or not, we professional, middle class Americans share more in common with them than we do with the 1% running the show.

Part of seeing our common lot, our shared position in society, and our mutual right to find our place in America is to stop “reforming” the poor. Stop treating social movements like they’re corporate branding exercises. Stop telling people how they should understand their own experience on this earth. Tend your own garden. Realize that you share the weather with others.


1 Comment

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One response to “Why don’t you be a nice girl, and keep quiet?

  1. SB

    Thanks for writing this Jenn.

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